May 2, 2017

GUEST ROOM | Varsity Athletics: Is It Worth It?

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Jordan Berger is a senior on the Cornell men’s swimming and diving team. The following is a speech he gave to his team at the end of season banquet.

Talking about being a Cornell University varsity swimmer is a great conversation topic. Whether people are genuinely curious about it, or just pretend to be interested as a courtesy, the mention of being a Division I athlete usually garners a few questions.

There is one question in particular that has persisted throughout my college swimming career, and is even more so prevalent now that it has recently ended.

“I cannot imagine waking up so early and practicing so much and skipping so many parties, like I do not know if I would do that even if I could.”

“Do you think it was worth it?”

When I stop to think seriously about this question, it is actually rather difficult to answer. Let me first clarify that in no way shape or form do I regret spending the last four years competing for the Big Red. But when I approach the question using the tools I learned obtaining my Policy Analysis & Management degree, performing a thorough cost benefit analysis of the situation, things do not necessarily add up the way you would expect them to.

Costs: I hopped onto excel to see if I could crunch a few numbers to learn something about the quantitative demands of my swimming career. What I found was… interesting. Throughout my collegiate athletic career, I have attended roughly 1,045 practices. I have spent 2,090 hours either submerged underwater or jogging from one exercise to another in the weight room. I have spent over 1,800 hours chasing busses across campus or trudging up and down the slope all to get to and from practice. I have foregone attending 210 parties, and most importantly, lost a whopping 920 hours of sleep because of swimming. For curiosity’s sake, I decided to drag my analysis out to encompass my entire life as a swimmer. Since my swim career began 16 years ago at the tender age of five, I have attended roughly 3,717 practices, have spent 7,049 hours submerged in chlorinated water and have spent over 1,800 hours being driven to and from swim practice by my mother. I have given 790,140 minutes of my life to this sport.

Benefits: Until about a month ago, every time I ran through this analysis in my head, I’d be stumped when I arrived at this point. It is a difficult thing to comprehend, let alone measure. What really are the benefits? I did not get money to swim here, no special academic privileges, no cool exclusive facilities or amazing clothes. There is no fame in swimming, hardly any campus recognition and we do not even get free parking. What is it that prevented me, and each athlete on this campus from going through the recruiting process, receiving no-strings attached admittance to Cornell University and just quitting the day we step foot on campus?


I stumbled upon the answer I’d been looking for for many years in a recently published book by Mark Manson titled The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. In the book, Manson discusses the conundrum of life long happiness. According to Manson, the conventional mentality that happiness comes from getting a promotion, buying a new car or getting into the best law school couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, happiness is realized by charging head on into the problems that life throws at you, solving them and coming into new, better problems. Thus, the pain and discomfort that accompany the problem solving process are necessary and constant forces in creating a happy life. The only way to be happy is to set yourself up with problems that you are happy solving.

Being a varsity athlete at Cornell is in its nature a problem. Most 18-year-old boys and girls are not pre-wired to handle one of the most grueling academic course loads in the world, sudden exposure to independent, unsupervised living all while suffering through 5:00 a.m. wake ups and two two-hour workouts a day. Each day you wake up as a varsity athlete is a new problem to solve, and all you have is the hope to wake up to a better problem the next day. It is this endurance that, at the end of the tunnel of senior year, ends up being the greatest blessing of all.

Cornell student athletes, as well as college athletes across the country, carry pain and suffering in their right and left hands wherever they go — on campus and beyond. To go forth into life knowing that you can solve any and all problems that fate throws your way is the benefit that completes my analysis. Unfortunately for those looking for a more precise answer to the evaluation, you simply cannot assign a quantitative value to realizing genuine, sustainable happiness.